Much has been written about how governments are creating open data platforms and are sharing data with the public.
Most of these platforms are designed for the reuse by professionals, such as journalists or researchers. Beyond visits to an open data portal it is however difficult to trace how data is actually used and if it pays out for public administrations to invest in open data efforts.
Similar to innovation, open data is assumed to be positive: it must lead to increased transparency and accountability – simply because of its existence.
In this paper, we used qualitative interviews with 15 U.S. cities that have created an open data portal and have an explicit open data strategy. We interviewed public managers responsible for open data in order to understand their perceptions of the outcomes of their open data activities.
As a result, we were able to trace both product innovations (apps, websites, etc.) and process innovations that are mostly internal to government.
The article is available online in open access format here.
Mergel, I., Kleibrink, A., & Sörvik, J. (2018). Open data outcomes: US cities between product and process innovation. Government Information Quarterly.
Last week, my colleagues Tina Nabatchi, Sean O’Keefe, David Van Slyke and I participated in the initial “Ready to Govern” event organized by the Partnership for Public Service and IBM’s Center for the Business of Government. Among the participants were colleagues from other Public Management departments around the country, practitioners from technology and consulting companies, as well as former career civil servants. The goal of the event was to identify the main management issues a new administration needs to know as soon as they take office. We were asked to take a bipartisan approach. The event was off the record, but we were encouraged to blog without attribution.
The event started out with a keynote by a high-ranking government official who reported about the second-term management innovations that are worth keeping. The current Presidential management agenda focuses on customer service, shared services, open data, smarter IT delivery, strategic sourcing, and benchmarking. While the agenda might not have changed, she highlighted that the current context in which government is operating has completely changed. She pointed especially to cybersecurity threats as well as the need to attract the brightest and smartest talent to public service. Using a new HR instrument, the current administration has created a new on-boarding tool to bring talent into government for short-term 2-year stints. These Presidential Innovation Fellows usually move back into their previous positions or might stay in government, however this tool is different than the Presidential Management Fellowship that is designed to provide a career path into government.
I was very excited to learn that especially the innovative and agile delivery of IT services through 18F plays a very prominent role in moving the Presidential management agenda forward. 18F is (located at 18th and F street in DC) home to many Presidential Innovation Fellows. I like to call them a ‘digital swat’ team. They helped for example to fix HealthCare.gov, created DOD’s Blue Button health records access, or the recent soft launch with improvements to FOIA. It is also interesting to note – at least from my perspective – that the federal government has accomplished to change the perception and potentially even the culture of government. Granted, this happens in a very small pocket of government, but it’s exciting to see that 18F attracts the best IT talent in the country. For example, the senior software architect of the NYT left the industry to join 18F recently, because his own industry is not innovating fast enough. Implied here is that he believes the federal government is a more attractive employer that is able to innovative faster. Obviously given the current arrangement the 18F fellows have to work on high profile/high impact projects, it is difficult to transfer the same environment easily to other federal agencies. But I like to think that change and innovation needs to start somewhere.
As part of the recent developments to improve basic public management practices, our keynote speaker highlighted also the strategic sourcing initiatives to make government a smarter buyer by changing the incentives to buy in bulk. One goal is to use existing data and analytics better and bring on more expertise to leverage the buying power of the federal government.
For the current administration open data plays a central role for economic development. With currently over 120,000 federal data sets published on Data.gov, the administration sees huge potential for economic development. The effort will continue to publish more data and shift the focus from mere publication to actual better use of the data. There are many (almost already ‘traditional’) success stories, such as NOAA’s weather data sets that are adding value with new business models outside of government. As an example, pilots and farmers are creating applications that are useful to them and are moving them on the market. However, the federal government wants more people to pick up the data and come up with meaningful applications.
In a world of big data analytics and the Internet of Things, I believe that government has barely scratched the surface of real-time collection and interpretation of data in the moment they are created and to use them to improve government decision-making. One of the problems to tackle is the existing data quality, (slow) decision making where to pull the data from, how to clean it up and get approval to publish the data. However, most of the issues with the data can only become apparent when people actually start to work with the data and use it. I have high hopes for the recently appointed White House Chief Data Scientist that he will have the time to make a meaningful contribution and initiate changes before the current administration rotates out of government.
After the initial keynote, it was time for us as a group to focus on getting the next management transition ‘righter’. One of the participants who was sitting next to me made a powerful statement: He said he has been part of eight Presidential transitions and it never goes smoothly. Another colleague, a former political appointee, raised the concern that every department head receives 18 binders with super urgent issues to immediately tackle, which bogs down initiatives and changes for the first six months of each administration. His wish was that each new public manager receives a short list of 3-5 issues to tackle and hit the road running, put together a team s/he trusts, focus on the department’s core mission, and get ready to tackle (new) national priorities from the start.
Our group then discussed the main management challenges a new administration has to face. We compiled an initial list that focused on those practices that we think should be kept and moved over to the next administration. We also identified a list of gaps that we think can be tackled by smart public management researchers.
I’m sure the list will come out soon – I am actually not sure if I am aloud to publish it, but there is significant overlap with the Presidential management agenda: we were concerned about fundamental management practices, such as recruiting and retaining talent, innovative management practices, etc.
My main concern is however: what if we work – in different constellations and with the input of many smart public management researchers and public managers on recommendations for the next Presidential management team and no one is listening? How do we accomplish the task to inform both Presidential candidate’s teams before they take office? Can they even communicate with us or are they too occupied to focus on political campaigning and don’t have the capacity to think beyond election day? I trust that the Partnership for Public Service and IBM’s Center for the Business of Government have the connections to communicate with future decision makers. My concern also highlights the wide gap between current public management research that is usually published with a 2-3 year time lag and the actual need for just-in-time research and information by policy makers and decision makers. We – researchers – need to get better at communicating more directly with the administration.
I would love to see a smooth transition that builds on the past strengths and quickly moves public management forward without losing the momentum that I have observed – especially in smart IT delivery.
Bill Greeves, CIO of Wake County, has joined my ‘Social Media in the Public Sector’ class this week (follow along on Twitter #maxmedia13). He talked about how the county seeks to innovate with social media and make government data available in places of high value for citizens.
The county provides sanitation scores to Yelp that are calculated based on routine inspections by the county’s inspectors of restaurants. At the same time, citizens who are visiting restaurants are leaving their own reviews and in combination with the formal county scores future restaurant visitors might gain a more complete picture than using individual insights from citizens only.
This looks like a great use of already collected and published government data: The county makes an effort to move the data from a government website that citizens might not readily find to an online destination where citizens are already talking about restaurants scores and where government data can gain additional value.
However, on Yelp a restaurant owner mentioned that score might not be reported correctly. This gives business owners an opportunity to review scores and directly interact with government:
“Big data” has become one of the new buzzwords and it is quickly making its way into conversations in government. However, it is difficult for government officials to identify what the big data discussion means for their own organizations, what the challenges are, how they can create additional capacity taking on a job that does not necessarily connect to the core mission of their agency and how they have to tackle the issue to respond to requests from the public.
The big data discussion hits government from two different sides: First, big data is created by citizens in their daily online interactions using social media either directly with government or talking among themselves about issues related to government. As the recently released first guidance for social media metrics for federal agencies shows, government is just now getting into the groove of measuring, interpreting and acting on insights they can potentially gain from their interactions with citizens. The other trend has started a few years ago with the newly initiated conversations around open government and the launch of the federal data sharing site data.gov, a public website that hosts hundreds of data sets produced by federal agencies.
Originally, the big data discussion started outside of government, but has direct implications for government as more and more agencies, politicians and citizens are using social media to interact with each other. Social networking platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, allow citizens to directly connect to government agencies, share their immediate sentiments via comments in their own news feed In doing so, they create hundreds of new data points, that increase the data volume far beyond a single phone call with a citizen request. As a matter of fact, the conversations can go back and forth between government and citizens, but also among citizens. Social media conversations might not even directly involve government, but they are related to ongoing hot-button issues, upcoming policy changes or the cut of a government program.
Keeping track of potentially thousands of externally created data points published by citizens on a daily basis has become an unmanageable problem that is slowly being addressed in the public sector. As a response, some agencies have shut down the possibility to leave comments on their Facebook pages reducing the cost to respond and track, others actively pull in citizen input or moved on to other ideation platforms that focus the conversation on a specific problem statement and streamline the solicitation of targeted responses and input from the public (see for example Challenge.gov).
The second trend that government agencies are facing is the mandate of the Open Government Initiative to release government data sets in machine-readable format for public consumption. The flagship initiative data.gov has paved the way for state and local governments to respond in a similar fashion. Most recently, NY state has released its own data portal, a website that hosts about 6,500 data sets from state, city and local government sources in NY state.
The challenge for public managers is manifold: they have to identify appropriate data sets, clean them, potentially merge them from different databases, and make sure that they do not contain any individual or personal information that cannot be released to the public by law. Independent of each agency’s individual response, given the multitude of citizen interactions and ongoing conversations in combination with the top-down mandates, additional resources, increased capacity and new positions with a specific skill sets are necessary to appropriately respond. Beyond the internal organizational challenges to manage information streams, big data is much more: Government agencies also need to understand how they can open themselves up for third parties who are reusing the data.
Mark Headd, the newly appointed first Chief Data Officer of the City of Philadelphia, recently spoke to my social media class at the Maxwell School and shared his first-hand insights into the world of Big Data in government. Mr. Headd was appointed through an executive order of Mayor Nutter in Philadelphia and organizationally embedded within the ICT unit and directly reports to the CIO and mayor. Mayor Nutter made it a political priority to understand and organically implement elements of the open government movement – an advantage that other cities might not have, where Chief Information or Chief Data Officers still need to battle political fights before they can implement change.
He describes himself as a data evangelist and an embedded technologist who has the task to discover government data, think about ways to make it available to the public and find a match between the data and external stakeholders who can potentially use the data to create public value. Internally, he is focused on cultural change more than on data analysis issues or technological problems: He aims to convince public managers to see the potential value the data can have for the public, start discussions about the reasons to release data and the way government officials view themselves, but most importantly inform them about changing expectations and citizen needs. Mr. Headd then facilitates connections between data sources and potential data users outside of government.
As one of the first Code for America cities in the U.S., Philadelphia’s local tech community of civic hackers has an immense motivation to reuse public information and create valuable applications. As opposed to data.gov, where data sets are mostly available for so-called “elite access” – a small group of highly trained computer specialists and data analysts – the approach in Philadelphia focuses on data that is not highly specialized, already publicly available, such as transit data, day care centers, information about flu shot locations, etc. Most people will consume the existing data through web browsers, either on their desktops or mobile phones. Mark Headd describes Philadelphia’s approach to open data as a focus on the “last mile”. By that he means, that the city invites civic hackers who recombine the existing disconnected data sets in a mindful way to go beyond mere display of data sets, as it is done on data.gov. The city wants to increase value to go beyond merely pushing out data as the main objective, instead they collaboratively want to build new mobile phone applications by recombining data.
Events such as “Code for Philly” in collaboration with Code for America combines members of government collaborating with the local technology community to use data and build new projects that have the potential to create a civic good. Again, Philadelphia comes with a unique advantage: The existing culture, that is similar to citizen such as Boston, Baltimore, is geographically close to NYC has a very active civic technology community with programmers who are passionate about the city, feel a sense of belonging and community, which other cities such as San Francisco which doesn’t have home-grown technologist. Mr. Headd’s goal is therefore to capitalize on the people’s love of their city.
One example, for Mr. Headd’s success are applications such as CityGoRound.org, which is a clearing house for applications around transit data. Local transit applications are built to help citizens catch their train. In addition, the application and code are also made available for reuse in other cities, by simply plugging in local transit data. Transit authorities agreed to a standard that makes sharing of already existing applications easy – work products don’t need to be reinvented or recreated around the country. As a result, the city and its technology stakeholders are collaboratively building an entire eco-system around government data use. All cities can use the same infrastructure and format to use the data.
One of the challenges Mr. Headd sees is convincing citizens to reuse the data and make use of the applications. One approach Philadelphia has chosen is to advertise the newly created third-party products on public buses (see for example ‘Where I my SEPTA?’). However, the question of endorsing and publicly sponsoring products that were built outside of government is still an unresolved issue.
Another challenge is the cultural change necessary to change existing bureaucratic governance procedures. For Mark Headd the solution is a conversation about effectiveness and efficiency of the current use of government data. He shows public managers he interacts with how they can reduce inefficiencies in responding to a steady stream of Freedom of Information Act-requests (FOIA) to release data to individual citizens or journalists. Every request takes time, is oftentimes burdensome to the unit and labor-intensive to research and respond to. Mr. Headd works together with public managers to look at the top-5 data requests, collaboratively tries to find ways to release the data and at the same time unload the administrative burden off the unit to respond to each request. Responders can simply point requestors to the publicly available data set and save time, resources, and money to research, vet, and formulate responses.
As an example, the Department of Licenses and Inspections receives multiple requests to release data about the number of locations of vacant houses as well as code violations. By releasing the data on a public website, the city allowed developers to create mobile applications and in turn significantly reduces the number of written requests and phone calls. The research activities for similar types of requests are minimized by simply pointing requestor to the new app. Government staff can turn their attention to the core mission, instead of being derailed by FOIA requests. A direct benefit to the release of government data.
Similarly efficient is the reuse of the data on the citizen side: during hackathon events civic hackers are building a service on top of government data sets and are therefore helping themselves, instead of having to reach out to government. A new form of co-delivering public services build on big data.
Mr. Headd shared a few insights on how other Chief Data Officers can tackle the issues in their own cities. He says “Nobody wants to be first, so point people to other success stories in other agencies.” He is constantly evangelizing about the value of big data, but is also informing local and city government and making his colleagues aware of what is going on around the U.S. (and the world), which helps them understand the benefits of releasing data. He suggests to show public managers tangible benefits, instead of talking about less tangible benefits such as openness or accountability which are very difficult to quantify, especially in budget-driven conversations.
Mark Headd sees limitless applications for the release of government data and the analysis and reuse of big data: Budgets, spending, crime or transit data enable people to see how well city employees are doing their jobs and help them make aware of the improvements or new focus area. The big data discussion can help here to talk about high performing government and all the things that work very well in local government. Most of the coverage government receive is unfortunately focused on things that are going wrong – big data can change the focus.
Lastly, social media and government data can then come together to create more personalized connections to citizens by communicating success stories. Citizen engagement will stay the major challenge: Similar to voting, Philadelphia has identified about 40 other processes in which citizen feedback is needed, engagement is low, and new experiments to increase feedback are needed. An application was recently launched to pull citizen opinions into the policy-making processes: Textizen.com allows citizens to send in their feedback by cellphone – without needing an expensive smart phone to actively participate in the policy-making process. By institutionalizing easy to use tools to which every citizen independent of their age group, income or technological literacy has access to, tools like Textizen can become part of a government’s future planning process and can automatically generate input without hosting town hall meetings at which limited numbers of people are participating.
The example of Philadelphia’s success is certainly an outlier: The city is blessed with a unique combination of advantages that other local governments might not have:
a political mandate that supports and mandates reuse of public information,
a technologist who understands managerial as well as technological and cultural issues in government, and
a unique tech community who loves its city and pushes the envelope to innovate.
However, all cities around the U.S. are invited to simply reuse existing applications without reinventing the wheel on a daily basis. Get going with resources that are already freely available and dive into the future of big data in government.